Singer on bleak prospects after his throat issues: ‘They said cancer would have been easier to get rid of’
by Patrick Doyle
Last year, doctors told John Mayer it could be years before he sang again. “There was not a lot of hope,” says the singer, who’d already been through failed surgery to repair a granuloma in his throat. “They said cancer would have been easier to get rid of.” But a second round of surgery in August worked, and on January 16th, Mayer played his first set in two years at a benefit in Bozeman, Montana, for the firefighters who battled the wildfires that destroyed 12,000 acres near the singer’s home last summer. Mayer sounded raspy but overjoyed jamming on an eight-minute version of last year’s “If I Ever Get Around to Living.”
In this exclusive online Q&A, Mayer opens up about his new voice, why he’s reluctant to speak out more often (“I abused that ability to express myself, to the point where I was expressing things that weren’t true to my thoughts”), dating Katy Perry, and why he doesn’t consider himself a pop hitmaker anymore. “I have gray hair on my temples,” he says. “Born and Raised is my least popular album. And that could be because I wasn’t ready to tour and promote, but also the videos came out, the record came out, it had a shot. I’m OK with that.”
Patrick Doyle: Congratulations on singing onstage again. The way you extended “If I Ever Get Around to Living“ and jammed on it at the Montana show was great.
John Mayer: Thank you. I’ve been dreaming about playing my own music [while] sitting in with the Rolling Stones and playing with all of these wonderful musicians. So much time had passed in between each of the times that I got to play guitar with somebody. There were days and weeks and literally months of not doing anything, and running out of things to do when there’s nothing to do. For me to get back onstage and play again, it’s just like, “Oh right, this is what I’m able to do. This is what I’ve been able to do while I was watching a whole bunch of Westerns every night and making rice bowls with chicken.” It’s been very fun to uncover it and rediscover it again.
PD: So you cooked a lot?
JM: Yeah. Just healthy food. I’m on a bran diet, man. I’m the king of rice and chicken. And Powerade Zero.
PD: How did you adapt to not being a touring, performing musician?
JM: I just became more settled in as a person. I would rather not be settled in as a person instead of playing music all the time, to be honest with you. But that wasn’t an option. I wasn’t going to be able to just visualize myself as a musician. You know, when you visualize yourself as a musician, you can make a lot of apologies for the little weird, interpersonal things you have with people. And when you don’t have that, you go, “OK, let’s focus in on the fact that the people I see today, I’m going to see tomorrow.” Maybe the most interesting thing is that when I was hanging out in L.A. or New York, I actually became a part of a social circle for the first time in my adult life, not just the circle of people on my tour. I actually started to learn, “Oh, these are people I’ll see at movie nights, house parties and dinners, so get to really know them and let them get to know you.” I was a little underdeveloped in the way of being the guy who’s at the party and not, “Hey, where are you playing next?” It’s just sort of a really interesting lesson. I’m glad I got it . . . I have friends – some are the closest friends of my life – who have never come to a show of mine because there has never been a show in the length of our friendship.
PD: Who do you consider your best friends?
JM: A lot of them are comedy writers, movie writers. I’m actually at my friend Ricky Van Veen’s place, who started CollegeHumor. I met him when I got off the road in 2010. It’s almost like to certain people, the fact that I’m a musician is known but not really understood on a certain level. I feel like when some of my dearest friends now come to a show one day, they’ll have a terrible time renegotiating that that’s who I am. Like, “Oh, right, you play onstage in front of thousands of people.”
You‘re playing Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and the New Orleans Jazz Fest. You‘re going to be on tour all summer, I assume.
Yeah. I’ll be touring all summer.
PD: And on January 16th, you raised more than $100,000 for the firefighters.
JM: That’s what they tell me, yeah.
PD: What made you want to make the Montana gig be your return to the stage after two years?
JM: I was just going to play guitar. It was going to be me sort of curating the night and playing guitar in everybody’s band. And it just turned out that I had been given the clean bill of health about a month ago. I didn’t really believe it. I actually had them go back another time to look again, and I kind of feel like I want to go back a third time, because I’m just not used to it going my way. It’s funny – you can’t even call it a granuloma anymore. It’s called a retinoid, which is where the granuloma was. It’s gone. After being plagued by it for two years, you almost keep thinking it’s like the end of Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s always this moment that it’s gonna come back, and I’m learning that that’s my imagination.
PD: Is it possible the granuloma could come back?
JM: Sure. Everybody goes through this – at 35, you realize you just can’t do whatever you want to do in terms of diet, sleep and overuse. You’re held accountable. It’s a ratio of one to one of what you put in to what you get out. I never went off the rails, but as a singer you have to really watch what you put into your body. Especially with what you put in your body before you lay flat and go to sleep. You don’t realize that when you go out and have a couple drinks and you come back home and you pass out, you’re raiding your esophagus with acid from two or three whiskey sours. If you do that night after night and then you sing eight hours a day while you’re writing a record, you’re going to start wearing away at the stuff in your throat.
PD: After the surgeries, how has your voice changed?
JM: Everything changed about my voice. I don’t have the projection. My laugh changed. The way I used to laugh is kind of like that “I’m embarrassed,” high-pitched laugh. I don’t really laugh that way anymore. I’ve found new ways around everything – new ways to talk, new ways to laugh. Now I wonder if I can go right back to the shape of my voice that I had when I was singing once I can do what I want to do with it.
PD: With extra time on your hands did you pay much attention to the current music cycle?
JM: A little bit. I wanted to step away from being competitive, or super-intellectualizing everything. It was about to be a generational change for me anyway. You know, I was about to be in it for my 10th and 11th year. That’s about the time when you have to make a decision as to whether you’re going to let the new generation in and respect it or say, “It shouldn’t be this way!” The music that was on the radio when I first came up in 2001 would never make it today. It was Norah Jones and Jack Johnson and Coldplay and me. It’s just different now.
The kind of stuff I like is not very popular anymore. I’m moving into another part of my life. I have gray hair on my temples, you know? Am I going to throw that aside and say, “I want to make sure I play Jingle Ball every year?” Or do I say, “That’s cool, I’m going to go gracefully into the next chapter of my life, and grow older with my audience” and be OK with not chasing hits.
I think Born and Raised is my most significant, meaningful record, and it’s also my least popular album. And that could be because I wasn’t ready to tour and promote, but also the videos came out, the record came out, it had a shot. I’m OK with that. And I think those couple years off that I couldn’t get on the ice sort of made me a lot more mellow and allowed me to see things by the month instead of the minute. And that was very cool for me. I don’t have opinions about most things anymore when it comes to music, because I’m aware that it doesn’t matter what I think anymore.
PD: Really? You could tour arenas and sell them out tomorrow.
JM: Yeah. But so can a lot of people who are a little less relevant on radio or culturally. It would be great to continue being thought of in the same thought as guys who are on the radio, selling a shitload of records and downloads and stuff. But I’m ready to experience whatever the result of the music I make is, whether people like it or not.
PD: Have you been writing new music?
JM: No, but I’ve been listening to stuff and just falling in love with certain things. I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead nonstop. Mark my words, the Grateful Dead are gonna make a comeback, because of how that music cleanses your palate. When everything is processed and quantized and gridded out – to hear “Tennessee Jed” played with that lope is a real palate-cleanser. They take their time, sometimes too much. This free expressive sort of spirit – I listen and I want to find a mix of that openness. I kind of want to go to that show, if it still existed. But I wish that there were tunes that I was more familiar with. I wish that I could be the singer. I wish I could have harmonies. And I wish that I could make it seven minutes instead of 13 minutes. Now I’ll get the opportunity to kind of try that.
PD: So that‘s where you‘re going musically?
JM: Yeah. My ears are done, cooked, on a traditional rhythm section, two guitar players, sideman playing along with the lead singer hoping they don’t step on his toes, and the wailing – the way that everything has kind of gone for the last 10 years for me. I know how I want to live onstage. I know how happy I want to be onstage.
PD: The John Mayer Trio record was very organic in that sense.
JM: Yeah. That was definitely something that I’m talking about that was like, “OK, it’s impossible not to have a great time doing this.” I just have this great opportunity where I haven’t performed for two years, and I’ve been mostly forgotten about for two years, musically. And why not come back and reboot it differently? No one is holding me to a standard that I set a month ago. That’s what’s so great. If I don’t take advantage of this, I’m never gonna have another shot to say, “Hey, when I start this heart back up, it’s gonna be in a different rhythm.”
PD: So are you reshuffling your live band?
JM: Not completely. But not just a different personnel lineup, but for me I think it’s a different approach to playing live music. I think one thing I would love to do away with is to kind of get rid of this imaginary “Wrap it up” light in my head when it comes to playing songs. You know, extend it if you still want to express yourself. If you still want to simmer on something, just do it. And change things up. Don’t be afraid if the crowd didn’t cheer as loud for the last song as you wanted them to. You don’t have to call an audible and change your set list. It’s all right, it’s OK.
PD: Would you jam on some of the old singles, like “Daughters,“ and extend it into a long jam?
JM: No. I think some of those songs aren’t designed for it. But that’s what I think is so great about Born and Raised. Most of it is designed to be jammed on, believe it or not. It’s been very difficult to not tour on, because that record itself tells half the story of those songs, and the other half of the story is told onstage. And I’ve had the live versions in my head ever since I made the record. I mean, “If I Ever Get Around to Living” could be a 12-minute-long song, and still be very interesting and unique and worth listening to.
PD: One of your band members told me you called them up last summer and they came up and you recorded some new stuff.
JM: Yeah, right before I had my second treatment I had a little bit of voice left, and I thought, “Well, let’s have some fun.” So the guys in the band came up to Montana, and we hung out and played every day in this barn up on the hill, and actually wrote about two or three more songs that aren’t stellar, but it’s always nice to have extra songs.
PD: How much time did you spend in Montana?
JM: That’s where I spent most of my time. It’s been great, and it’s all a testament to [the locals’] acceptance, because I know there’s got to be a fair amount of skepticism about a well-known guy coming into town. And there’s got to be some skepticism, some doubt about what the intent of it is. But they’ve really been great to me and accepted me. It’s just been fantastic. It’s sort of the very definition of what a personal life is. It’s not just about who you’re dating, it’s about who you know who works at the place you get your coffee from, and knowing what the high school mascot is of your town. That’s the stuff that’s been really great, is just connecting with the community.
PD: Before you went away you got some flak for saying various things, and then there was the Taylor Swift situation. Were these reasons why you wanted to get away?
JM: I don’t know that I thought of it as a Band-Aid for anything. I just saw it as a protectant from future things. I wasn’t running away, because I would have happily gone back on tour. It was like, I want to have a place over time where I can just get away to, and I happen not to be able to go anywhere else, so I’m gonna start living where I was planning on living two years from now because I was going to be on tour. When I got that place, I thought that I was going on tour. That’s important to know. I thought that was going to be the place I hung out in between legs of a tour. Then it turned out there wasn’t going to be a tour, and I thought, “Well, let me just go start laying down my roots there.” I had spent enough time after some tough times in my life right on the street in front of everybody. I was in New York making Born and Raised for the year after and I was in L.A. finishing the record the year after that. So, no, by that point it wasn’t like, “Let me go retreat.”
PD: Then you started seeing Katy Perry, who’s also very famous. That makes it hard to live a private life too. I can imagine that‘s kind of intensified lately.
JM: It makes it hard to live a life where people don’t know who you are, but I haven’t had any trouble in my private life at all. The only trouble I’ve had is maybe people geo-tagging me, but that’s about it. To me it’s just a matter of people knowing where you are on a given day, and I guess assessing your style when there is no style to be assessed. I don’t really call that infringing on a personal life. That’s just where I am, when. That’s all.
PD: How has the relationship been for you?
JM: It’s been . . . I mean, I’m quite happy. I’m happy in all aspects of my life. I’m very happy in all aspects of my life.
And I also think that the way that the media plays a part in everyone’s life has changed over the last several years. People are a lot less concerned in what’s going on with other people. I think people are a lot less concerned with what’s going on with the lives of celebrities, and celebrities are a little less concerned with what’s going on with the lives of other people thinking about them all day [laughs].
I mean, I used to be incredibly put off by somebody taking a picture, thinking as if in some way it was it was invading my brain. But all it is is you can see where I was last weekend. That’s all. So now you got a picture of where I was last weekend. That’s not tremendously frightening to me.
On the outset of all this stuff in 2007 and 2008, everybody was thinking, “Well, what does this mean for me? When somebody takes my picture and they put it up on the Internet the next day and they write stuff about me, what does this mean for me? What is this going to steal from me?” And I think time has shown that nothing will be stolen from you. It’s just a photograph of you and your dumb scarf that you put on because it wouldn’t fit in your suitcase. Cool. If you want to “style police” my day off, that’s fine.
PD: Rock musicians aren‘t typically public figures like you anymore. You‘re probably the most famous young guitarist who plays the guitar in front of an arena. There haven‘t been many others since you came out around 2001.
Oh, well, yeah. I would like to think that at least a small part of the reason people care about me in any way is because I’m still trying to put the best music out that I can. I’m not deluded enough to think that everyone who knows my name is a listener. You know, I hope that part of that interest – part of that public interest – has to do with me still making records that people like. Yeah, that’d be nice.
PD: What new music are you into?
JM: Um, I had an M83 moment this summer, which was really cool. But I’m not plugged in like I used to be, you know. I love Frank [Ocean]’s stuff. Frank is such an interesting, deep, touched, wonderful guy. They don’t make a lot of other Frank Oceans, and the guy is looking for another. And the way that his mind works is craving the same frequency that he’s able to communicate on, and I think he’s just searching for that kind of depth that he has inside of himself in someone else. He’s fascinating to me. He’s so great.
PD: It’s pretty incredible how open he is about everything and how receptive people are.
Yeah. I think it has more to do with just being that expressive about anything in this day and age, and the depth of his writing. I think it’s as much about taking a stand against being fucking boring as it is about sexuality. It’s about standing up and going, “I know what you’re going to say about this, and I don’t care.” And I think that was the heroic part. I know there were parts that were heroic for other people. For me, it’s just the heroic self-expression. You don’t even need publicists anymore – people are just as scared for themselves as the publicists would be.
PD: Because they can say anything at any time without having to go through any certain channels?
No, I’m saying that we’re all as freaked out as the publicists would be. Everyone is self-PRing. We’re all worried to express ourselves, because we are scared of the imminent criticism as we are typing. And I think for a guy to express any idea with that kind of bravery, a guy writing without caring what you think. What’s fascinating to me is not as much what he’s expressing – it’s that he chose to just make an expression one time, deeply, honestly. I feel like Jodie Foster is the same thing. They’re just like, “Here’s what I want to say, and I’m not interested in what the response to this is going to be. It’s important that I express it.”
And I think that’s where we need to get to again, where 85 percent of the importance lies in the expression of it and that’s all. And that’s very interesting to me. And for someone like myself who’s definitely gone to a place where I abuse that ability to express myself to the point where I was expressing things that weren’t true, that weren’t even my thoughts, that were so free-association – it’s cool to see somebody stand up for what they think. Fuck what you believe – stand up for what you think at any given moment, you know what I mean? And that’s what makes it really interesting.
PD: Are we going to hear from you more?
JM: I try, you know, I try. My problem is that as soon as an idea of mine that’s in my head, in a very safe place, sort of hits the oxygen, I immediately begin criticizing it in the voice of other people. And I need to stop doing it. I’m nowhere near as brave as I was saying Frank is. With Frank, there’s a sincerity to it. And I need to sort of get back – I haven’t really expressed any ideas. I’m dealing with expressing ideas to you for the first time, going, “Look, print it however you want to print it.” The difference here is that the things that I’m saying are true to how I feel.
PD: What big ideas haven‘t you shared with me yet?
JM: Oh, I don’t know. But I also don’t really care that much about what I think anymore. I’m not that interested in my own opinions anymore.
PD: What do you mean?
JM: I’m interested in living more of a life that’s invisible to everybody and more vibrant to a fewer people that are in my life. I don’t need everybody to think a certain thing that I wish they would think. I’m out of that game. And I think 35’s a great time. You investigate yourself, you know there are things that aren’t growing correctly, or serving you as you get older, and you break yourself down in a period of time. I’m actually lucky that I didn’t have to do that while I was on the road. I had a couple years off, and you deconstruct yourself. It’s very painful, and when you reconstruct yourself, you kind of have a fresh outlook on the next 20 years of your life.
PD: Where do you want to be in 20 years?
JM: Just playing, putting out records, having a good life, and letting other people take the ride I took.
PD: Do you want to get married?
JM: I want to live a very traditional life with a very untraditional day job. You know what I mean?
PD: Will you get back to stand-up comedy any time soon?
JM: No, no. I’ll just make my funny friend laugh, that’s enough for me. Making my funny friends laugh is all I actually really wanted. I just didn’t realize it. You go, “This guy wrote Ghostbusters III and he’s laughing at what I said!”
PD: When does the tour start?
JM: Oh, I don’t know. You’ll find out dates before I do.
PD: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk. It’s good to hear from you again.
JM: Thanks, man. Be kind to me.